Unless things change, the man (or woman) elected in 2012 will be the last American president to preside over the world’s leading economy. If things get really bad, he will find himself presiding over the early stages of American collapse. Not “decline” but “collapse.” “Decline” is what happens when you’re Britain in the 1940s and you cede global dominance to a major ally that shares your language, legal system, cultural inheritance, and broad geopolitical objectives. That deal isn’t on offer this time round.
Nor was the United Kingdom circa 1948 in thrall to anything like the same levels of spendaholic insanity. The current debate on the “debt ceiling” testifies to how thoroughly public discourse has flown the coop of reality.
Sure, Congress can vote to raise the debt ceiling — just as you and your spouse can reach a bipartisan agreement on raising your own debt ceiling. Go on, try it: Hold a vote in your rec room, come up with a number, and then let MasterCard know what you’ve decided on.
In the real world, debt ceilings are determined by the lenders, not by the borrowers. In March, Pimco (which manages the world’s largest mutual fund) calculated that 70 percent of U.S. Treasury debt is being bought by the Federal Reserve.
So under the 2011 budget, every hour of every day, the United States government spends $188 million it doesn’t have, $130 million of which is “borrowed” from itself. There’s nobody else out there.
In other words, however Congress votes, we’re rubbing up against the real debt ceiling — the willingness of the world to continue bankrolling American debauchery.
Barack Obama is offering us a Latin-American future — that’s to say, a United States in which a corrupt governing class rules a dysfunctional morass. He’s confident that, when the moat with alligators is put in, he’ll be on the secure side. If you figure you’ll be, too, you can afford to vote for him.
The rest of us would like a credible alternative. The Republicans have a habit of nominating the guy whose turn it is: Bob Dole, John McCain.
This time the guy whose turn it is is Mitt Romney. Unfortunately for him, his signature legislation in Massachusetts looks awfully like a pilot program for Obamacare. So in recent days, he’s been out yet again defending his record: If I understand him correctly, his argument is that the salient point about Romneycare and Obamacare is not that they’re both disasters, but that one’s local and the other’s national, and that Obama has a one-disaster-fits-all approach to health care whereas Romney believes in letting a thousand disasters bloom. Celebrate diversity!
If Mitt can make this fly, he’s some kind of genius. The problems with Romneycare are well known: Mitt argued that Massachusetts needed to reform its health-care system because the uninsured were placing huge strains on the state’s emergency rooms and the rest of the population had to pick up the tab for the free-riders, and that was driving up Massachusetts health costs. So, as a famous can-do technocrat, he looked at the problem and came up with a can-do technocratic solution. Three years later, everyone was insured, but emergency-room use was higher than ever, and 70 percent of those newly insured were all but entirely subsidized by the state, and Massachusetts residents were paying 30 percent more for their health care than the U.S. average, and Boston had the longest wait time in the nation to see a new doctor. Last year, I gave a speech to the American Society for Cataract and Refractive Surgery at its annual conference in Boston, and got a cheap laugh by telling the assembled ophthalmologists that just by flying in to the convention center they’d dramatically improved the city’s doctor/patient ratio.
American conservatives’ problem with Romneycare is the same as with Obamacare — that, if the government (whether state or federal) can compel you to make arrangements for the care of your body parts that meet the approval of state commissars, then the Constitution is dead. And Americans might as well shred the thing and scatter it as confetti over Prince William and his lovely bride, along with an accompanying note saying, “Come back. It was all a ghastly mistake.” For if conceding jurisdiction over your lungs and kidneys and bladder does not make you a subject rather than a citizen, what does?
I doubt Romney thought about it in such terms. In 2006, he was not a philosophical conservative. Like Donald Trump today, he sold himself as a successful business guy, a problem solver who knew how to make things happen. So he made things happen. And, as a result, he made things worse. How does that happen?
Because, to make things happen in a diseased polity such as Massachusetts, you have to get it past the lifetime legislative class and the ever more swollen regulatory bureaucracy. And, whatever theoretical merits it might have had when the can-do technocrats cooked it up, by the time it’s been massaged through the legislature and pumped full of steroids by the backstage boys, it will just be the usual oozing pustuled behemoth of drearily foreseeable unforeseen consequences. The inflationary factor in Massachusetts health care was not caused by deadbeats’ using emergency rooms as their family doctor but by the metastasizing cost distortions of government intervention in health care: Mitt should have known that — just as he should know that government intervention in college loans has absurdly inflated the cost of ludicrously overvalued credentials and, in a broader sense, helped debauch America’s human capital. And just as he should know that government intervention in the mortgage market is why every day more and more American homeowners are drowning in negative equity.
So Romneycare is not just an argument about health care. It exemplifies what’s wrong with American political structures: It suggests that our institutions are incapable of course correction; it reminds us (as does Boehner’s joke budget “savings” of a couple of weeks back) that Republicans are either easily suckered or too eager to be bipartisan figleafs in embarrassing kindergarten kabuki; it confirms that “technocracy” in politics is a synonym for “more”: more government, more spending, more laws, more bureaucrats, more regulations, more paperwork, more of what’s killing this once-great republic every hour of every day. In defense of Romney, one might argue that politics is the art of the possible. But in Massachusetts what was possible made things worse. That’s the situation the nation is in — and the message that America’s lenders are beginning to get.
If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Romneycare is not part of the solution; it embodies the problem. If Mitt Romney cannot recognize that, it’s unlikely that he’s the guy to pull American politics back into a passing acquaintance with reality. To put it in Obama terms, America is a moat, and it’s filled with government spendaholics. You could toss a poor alligator in there, but they’d pick him clean in seconds, and leave what was left for Nancy Pelosi’s shoes.
— Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is author of America Alone. © 2011 Mark Steyn.